Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Play me a tune in Mason City October 9, 2014

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 6:00 AM
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MY ENTIRE LIFE, I wished I could play the piano.

But opportunity never presented itself. Or more like limited finances never allowed for purchase of a piano or piano lessons. When you grow up in a large family without much money, piano lessons miss the budget. And when there are farm chores, time does not allow for piano lessons.

To this day, I cannot play a single musical instrument or read a note.

A sign invites pianists to sit down and play.

A sign invites pianists to sit down and play the public piano.

But I appreciate music and what a group of Mason City High School students, through Youth Investing Energy in Leadership Development (YIELD), have brought to their northeastern Iowa community via “Tunes for the Town.”

A "Tunes for the Town" piano located in Mason City's downtown Plaza.

A “Tunes for the Town” piano located in Mason City’s downtown Plaza.

Through this project, students painted four donated pianos which were then placed around Mason City in May. On a recent visit there, I discovered one of those public pianos outside Southbridge Mall in the downtown Plaza. The other three are located in Central Park, near KCMR radio’s studio and inside The Music Man Square.

This public piano project is especially fitting for Mason City, birthplace of “The Music Man” composer, Meredith Willson.

Beth Ann and Randy uncover the Plaza piano, revealing a color piano which mimics my friend's colorful shirt.

Beth Ann and Randy uncover the Plaza piano, revealing a colorful piano mimicking my friend’s colorful shirt.

On this quiet Sunday afternoon, my husband, Randy, and friend, Beth Ann, who lives in Mason City and served as our tour guide, uncovered the piano.

Randy has enough musical knowledge to play a short tune.

Randy has enough musical knowledge to play a short tune.

Then Randy pounded out some simple beginner’s tune and determined the piano needs tuning. His dad played piano and organ and even an accordion, before he lost his hand in a farming accident. But even after the accident, my father-in-law still tuned pianos.

The colorful back of the piano.

The colorful back of the piano.

No concert was performed that Sunday afternoon in the Plaza. But my unheard applause rings for those high school students and “Tunes for the Town.”

Just cover the piano once you've finished playing.

Just cover the piano once you’ve finished playing.

FYI: The pianos are locked at night and, as you can see, are covered to protect them from the weather. They will be moved indoors this winter.

A 22-year-old Des Moines man pled guilty recently to felony criminal mischief after he flipped and destroyed one of the pianos earlier this year. That piano has since been replaced.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

In praise of community sculpture walks, like the one in Mason City October 8, 2014

BRINGING ART TO THE STREETS, in essence to the general public, excites me.

Not all of us have the opportunity to tour big city art galleries or other places that showcase the creations of renowned sculptors.

Martin Eichinger of Portland, Oregon, created this graceful "Bird in the Hand" bronze sculpture valued at $14,500 and posed near the Mankato Civic Center.

Martin Eichinger of Portland, Oregon, created this graceful “Bird in the Hand” bronze sculpture valued at $14,500 and posed near the Mankato Civic Center during my visit there in 2011.

So when communities like Mankato and Bemidji, Minnesota; Sioux Falls, South Dakota; Eau Claire, Wisconsin; and Mason City, Iowa, bring sculptures to the streets, I want to stand up and shout, “Thank you!”

Details define "Reading Magic," a $8,500 bronze sculpture by Julie Jones of Fort Collins, Colorado.

Details define “Reading Magic,” a $8,500 bronze sculpture by Julie Jones of Fort Collins, Colorado, displayed in the 2011 CityArt Walking Sculpture Tour in Mankato.

I’ve toured the Bemidji and Mankato outdoor sculpture collections and recently spotted several of the 33 sculptures on loan and/or permanent display as part of River City Sculptures on Parade in Mason City. The artwork is exhibited for a year before a new set of sculptures rolls into town. All of the art is for sale, so some remains permanently in the host cities.

Isn’t this just the greatest idea?

Here’s a look at some of the sculptures, and the settings in which they are placed, in Mason City:

This downtown Mason City building dwarfs a corner placed sculpture, "The Thinker," by Serge Mozhnevsky.

This downtown Mason City building, the former First National Bank, dwarfs a corner placed sculpture, “The Thinker,” by Serge Mozhnevsky. John Dillinger and other gangsters robbed the bank on March 13, 1934, escaping with about $52,000.

Directly across the street you'll find "Bruno" by artist Eric Thorsen in the Federal Avenue Plaza.

Directly across the street you’ll find “Bruno” by artist Eric Thorsen in the Federal Avenue Plaza.

The Plaza, a green space (even if it is artificial turf) in downtown Mason City, provides an ideal location for sculptures.

The Plaza, a green space (of artificial turf, cement and bricks) in downtown Mason City, provides an ideal location for sculptures.

Sculptor Martha Pettigrew's "Fish Story," featuring a grandfather and two of his grandchildren, has been purchased as a permanent part of the city's sculpture collection. The red bench was recently replaced by a gray bench.

Sculptor Martha Pettigrew’s “Fish Story,” featuring a grandfather and two of his grandchildren, has been purchased as a permanent part of the city’s sculpture collection. The red bench was recently replaced by a less distracting gray bench. The art is located in the Plaza.

Art on the Plaza extends beyond the sculptures. Look up.

Art on the Plaza extends beyond the sculptures. Look up.

The buildings themselves are art.

The buildings themselves are art.

The Plaza presents a welcoming and inviting spot to linger in the heart of downtown Mason City.

The Plaza presents a welcoming and inviting spot to linger in the heart of downtown Mason City.

Martha Pettigrew's "American Architect," a portrait of Frank Lloyd Wright, stands permanently in Central Park. The famous Prairie School style architect designed a house, hotel and bank in Mason City.

Martha Pettigrew’s “American Architect,” a portrait of Frank Lloyd Wright, stands permanently in Central Park. The famous Prairie School style architect designed a house, hotel and bank in Mason City.

The Meredith Willson Footbridge, named after "The Music Man" composer, was built in 1940 and spans Willow Creek.

The Meredith Willson Footbridge, named after “The Music Man” composer, was built in 1940 and spans Willow Creek. It is, in itself, a work of art.

"Kinetic Weather Disturbance Ensemble," a sculpture by Douglas Walker, is located at one end of the bridge. It is now part of the city's permanent sculpture collection.

“Kinetic Weather Disturbance Ensemble,” a sculpture by Douglas Walker, is located at one end of the bridge. It is now part of the city’s permanent sculpture collection.

Just another view of the long and scenic bridge. On the afternoon we visited, three deer frolicked in the creek.

Just another view of the long and scenic bridge. On the afternoon we visited, three deer frolicked in the creek.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Frank Lloyd Wright’s imprint upon Mason City October 7, 2014

CONSTRUCTED WITHIN MY HOUSE of memories, I see my mother paging through floor plans in booklets picked up at the local lumberyard. She dreamed of a new house for her large and growing family.

She bulged heavy with child in 1967, the year relatives and contractors built the house of her dreams and the August she birthed her final of six babies.

By the Christmas holidays, we had abandoned our cramped wood-frame farmhouse for the walk-in basement rambler across the driveway. We welcomed a bathroom, a basement with a cement floor and plenty of closet space. And the warmth of a central heating system.

I attribute my appreciation and interest in architecture to those pre-teen memories of Mom sifting through house plans and of watching Dad unfurl blueprints for our new home. Vivid, too, are the earthy scent of sawdust, the open two-by-fours nailed into rooms, the grind of the cement mixer.

To this day, I study the lines of houses, consider their architecture, often wish I could step inside.

A Prairie School house in the Glen Rock neighborhood of Mason City, Iowa.

A Prairie School house in the Rock Glen neighborhood of Mason City, Iowa.

So on a recent visit to northeastern Iowa, I was thrilled to discover the greatest concentration of Prairie School architecture (eight homes, a bank and hotel, by my count) in the upper Midwest in Mason City.

Martha Pettigrew's "American Architect," a portrait of Frank Lloyd Wright, stands permanently in Central Park. The famous Prairie School style architect designed a house, hotel and bank in Mason City.

Martha Pettigrew’s “American Architect,” a sculpture of Frank Lloyd Wright, stands permanently in Mason City’s Central Park, across the street from the bank and hotel he designed and which were completed in 1910.

Frank Lloyd Wright himself imprinted his Prairie School architecture upon Mason City with the design of the Park Inn Hotel and City National Bank, both listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and of the Stockman House, built for Dr. George Stockman and his family.

Frank Lloyd designed this house, moved to 530 First St. N.E. and today open to the public as an interpretative center, for Dr. George Stockman.

Frank Lloyd designed this house, moved to 530 First St. N.E. and today open to the public as an interpretative center, for Dr. George Stockman. I did not tour the home during my visit to Mason City.

Today the Stockman House is open to the public as a showcase of Wright’s work. You can also tour the historic hotel and former bank.

A Prairie School neighborhood snapshot.

A Prairie School neighborhood snapshot.

A walk through the Rock Crest/Rock Glen neighborhood reveals more Prairie School homes designed by students of this definitively first American style of architecture. I don’t pretend to be an expert in architecture. But Prairie School homes are easily recognizable with their primarily flat and looming rooflines, rectangular windows, plainness, imposing strength and sense of privacy.

Not just any old street corner in any old neighborhood.

Not just any old street corner in any old neighborhood.

Enjoy this tour of Prairie School homes in Mason City. Now if only I could have toured the interiors, I’d have been especially pleased.

 

 

Prairie School 3

 

Prairie School 4

 

Signs embedded in the sidewalk identify some, if not all, of the Prairie School houses.

Signs embedded in the sidewalk identify some, if not all, of the Prairie School houses.

 

An entry to the 1915 Hugh Gilmore House designed by Francis Barry Byrne. It's located at 511 E. State Street.

An entry to the 1915 Hugh Gilmore House designed by Francis Barry Byrne. It’s located at 511 E. State Street.

 

A stunning car port on a Prairie School style house.

A stunning car port on a Prairie School style house.

 

The E.V. Franke House at 507 East State Street, designed by Francis Barry Byrne in 1917.

The E.V. Franke House at 507 East State Street, designed by Francis Barry Byrne in 1917.

 

Prairie School 5

 

A view of the 1915 Sam Schneider House at 525 E. State Street and designed by Walter Burley Griffin.

A view of the 1915 Sam Schneider House at 525 E. State Street and designed by Walter Burley Griffin.

 

The 1920 George Romey House was designed by J.M. Felt & Co. with Prairie School influence.

The 1920 George Romey House was designed by J.M. Felt & Co. with Prairie School influence.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Preserving Frank Lloyd Wright’s work in Mason City October 3, 2014

THIS WEEKEND, IT’S THE SITE of the Iowa Independent Film Festival.

The 1910 Grille sits to the right with the hotel entry in the middle and the former bank to the left.

The 1910 Grille sits to the right with the hotel entry in the middle and the former bank to the left.

But typically, the Historic Park Inn Hotel in Mason City draws the interest of those who appreciate Prairie School architecture. Frank Lloyd Wright designed the 1910 complex anchored in the heart of this northeastern Iowa city.

The original City National Bank today houses the hotel ballroom.

The original City National Bank, right, today houses the hotel ballroom/banquet room.

Originally built as a hotel, bank and law offices, the restored corner structure today houses a 27-room hotel, five-star restaurant (1910 Grille’) and banquet/ballroom/conference facilities. It’s on the National Register of Historic Places.

Windows and architecture inside the ballroom/banquet room.

Windows and architecture inside the ballroom/banquet room.

Recently I took a self-guided tour of the Wright-designed structure. Docent-led tours are available for a fee.

The Park Inn Hotel front desk.

The Park Inn Hotel front desk.

A skylight.

A skylight.

Dark. Everything is dark.

Dark wood dominates.

As I expected, this Prairie School building is heavy on the wood. Dark. Defined by lines and simplicity.

The billiard room.

The billiard room.

My husband kicks back in an historic building that draws lots of interest.

My husband kicks back in a first floor lounge.

Light floods this area which opens to an upper level patio.

Light floods this area which opens to an upper level patio.

This place, I determined, could be the setting for the classic detective board game Clue. Imagine Professor Plum reading in the library, Miss Scarlet dancing in the ballroom, Col. Mustard shooting pool in the billiard room, Mr. Green hanging out in the lounge. No weapons in sight, though.

So wanders my imaginative mind.

Exterior detail on the former City National Bank.

Exterior detail on the former City National Bank.

Imagination will be showcased within these walls at the weekend Iowa Independent Film Festival which continues from 10 a.m. – 10 p.m. Saturday and then resumes Sunday, running from 1 – 7 p.m. Showings include documentary, feature, short feature and student films.

A sculpture of Frank Lloyd Wright stands in Central Park, photographed here from an upper story of the hotel.

A sculpture of Frank Lloyd Wright stands in Central Park, photographed here from an upper story of the hotel.

“Wright on the Park: Saving the City National Bank,” a documentary, airs on Sunday. The non-profit Wright on the Park was established to “own, restore and maintain the Frank Lloyd Wright designed properties across from Central Park.” The restoration cost $18.5 million.

The entire building was restored several years ago for $18.5 million.

The entire building was restored several years ago for $18.5 million.

To the vision-led historians, much is owed for preserving this Prairie School treasure in Iowa.

Strong rooflines define Prairie School architecture like this at the hotel.

Strong rooflines define Prairie School architecture like this at the hotel.

FYI: Mason City is also home to other Frank Lloyd Wright designed and Prairie School architecture. I’ll post about that next.

If you are interested in attending the film fest, click here for more info.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Part II: Inside the artsy Rancho Deluxe Z Garden in Mason City September 25, 2014

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A PRECISE WORD EDLUDES me to describe the Rancho Deluxe Z Garden in Mason City, Iowa.

A sign welcomes visitors to this unofficial, privately-owned Mason City sculpture garden.

A sign welcomes visitors to this unofficial, privately-owned Mason City sculpture garden.

Rather, I must choose a list of words for this half-acre garden created by local Max Weaver: quirky, odd, unique, creative, unbelievable. And, yes, even a bit weird.

See for yourself in these images snapped during a recent visit to 500 Second Street Northeast:

While touring here, you certainly will ask yourself about the meaning of many objects and displays.

While touring here, you certainly will ask yourself about the meaning of many objects and displays.

An outside the fence view.

An outside the fence view.

I really liked this circular garden art placed next to ornamental grass.

I really liked this circular garden art placed next to ornamental grass.

An eclectic mix.

An eclectic mix.

boat

An “air boat.”

I simply love this repurposing of 4,000 pound cement blocks as canvas for art.

I simply love this repurposing of 4,000 pound cement blocks as canvas for art.

Love this message in a maze of blocks.

Love this message in the maze of blocks.

Even old signage proves artful.

Even old signage proves artful.

One of my favorite sculptures features wheel covers.

One of my favorite sculptures features wheel covers.

The garden even includes a veterans' memorial.

The garden even includes a veterans’ memorial.

More projects and/or space for future expansion spotted through bars on the property.

More projects and/or space for future expansion spotted through a barred barrier on the property.

FYI: Click here to read my first post about Rancho Deluxe Z Garden.

Please check back next week for more stories from my visit to Mason City.

Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

One quirky sculpture garden in Mason City, Iowa September 24, 2014

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YOU LIKELY WILL NOT FIND this Mason City attraction listed on any official tourism website.

The official sign marking this unofficial sculpture park in Mason City.

The official sign marking this unofficial sculpture park in Mason City.

But Rancho Deluxe Z Garden, a quirky sculpture garden created on a half-acre of land in this northeastern Iowa community, is precisely the type of homespun arts spot that draws my interest.

An overview upon arriving at Rancho Deluxe Z Garden.

An overview upon arriving at Rancho Deluxe Z Garden.

If not for Mason City resident, blogger and friend, Beth Ann Chiles, though, I likely never would have visited this community, thus missing out on Max Weaver’s creative oddity located at 500 Second Street Northeast. Beth Ann knows me well enough to know I would want to visit the Rancho while visiting her.

The freaky portrait I captured.

The freaky portrait I captured.

So off we drove, aiming for this sculpture garden at the end of a dead end street on a hot and humid Sunday afternoon in late August. We weren’t the only ones there. A photographer was doing a senior photo shoot in a spot apparently popular for such portraits.

The garden features an abundance of bikes.

The garden features an abundance of bikes.

Another suspended bike...

The other side of the suspended bike.

Signatures of Ragbrai 2014 participants who stopped here.

Signatures of Ragbrai 2014 participants who stopped here.

And this summer, participants in Iowa’s Ragbrai, an annual bike ride across the state, toured the Rancho, a stop documented in signatures upon a cement block. The garden features bikes suspended from trees, fences and elsewhere, incorporated as works of art, making this Ragbrai visit especially appropriate.

Randy found his way inside the castle.

Randy found his way inside the castle.

Beth Ann and I, cameras in hand, meandered through the garden while my husband, Randy, clipped along. The Rancho calls for a slow study and multiple times walking through the garden to take in every detail. I expect I missed much, even at my snail’s pace. And, noted, Beth Ann, the garden is ever evolving.

Do loiter here. Especially take time to look at the many 3 x 3-feet painted cement blocks weighing 4,000 pounds.

Do loiter here. Especially take time to look at the many 3-foot square painted cement blocks weighing 4,000 pounds.

From signs to hub caps, bikes, dolls, license plates, rocks, statues, wheels, painted cement blocks and more, this garden presents an eclectic mix of stuff artfully placed on this plot of land.

I'm always a little creeped by misplaced dolls.

I’m always a little creeped by misplaced dolls.

You just have to see Rancho Deluxe Z Garden to believe this almost indescribable place. If you appreciate odd and quirky and art outside the box, then head for Mason City and Max Weaver’s unique sculpture garden.

BONUS PHOTOS:

Love this flower arcing above the garden.

Love this flower arcing above the garden.

More stuff suspended from trees.

More stuff suspended from trees.

Love the vibrant colors and the art painted on a cement block.

Love the vibrant colors and the art painted on a cement block. As I understand, the painted art has been created by many local artists.

Will you always understand what you see? Nope. Bowling balls in a bathtub...

Will you always understand what you see? Nope. Bowling balls in a bathtub…

FYI: Check back tomorrow for more photos from this sculpture garden.

If you like quirky places, consider also touring the “antique theme park” at Hot Sam’s Antiques, rural Lakeville, Minnesota. Click here to read about my visit there two years ago.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A teaser trailer to Mason City, Iowa, attractions September 23, 2014

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IOWA. We Minnesotans joke about our neighbor to the south.

“What’s in Iowa?”

“Why would you ever want to go there?”

Well, my fellow Minnesotans and anyone who has ever shunned Iowa, there are many reasons to visit this Midwestern state. Iowa is about much more than the slogan, “Fields of Opportunities,” bannered on a Welcome to Iowa sign as you cross the border aiming south.

You'll see lots of farms as you drive through Iowa, including this one off Interstate 35 just across the Minnesota border.

You’ll see lots of farms as you drive through Iowa, including this one off Interstate 35 just across the Minnesota border.

Yes, you will see an abundance of endless fields and lots of barns. Northeastern Iowa is even designated a Silos & Smokestacks National Heritage Area celebrating agriculture.  But you’ll also discover charming river towns and other interesting attractions, too.

Welcome to Mason City, a community of some 28,000 in northeastern Iowa.

Welcome to Mason City, a community of some 28,000 in northeastern Iowa.

We’ll start our journey off Interstate 35 just across the border in Mason City, home of my friend, Beth Ann Chiles, who blogs at It’s Just Life. Beth Ann welcomed my husband and me into her northeastern Iowa community, touring us around town on a hot and steamy August Sunday afternoon. Yes, we were practically dripping sweat. But, it was a great tour and a wonderful day and overnight spent with a friend whom I cherish.

Friend and blogger Beth Ann, right, was our personal tour guide in Mason City.

Friend and blogger Beth Ann, right, was our personal tour guide in Mason City.

Here’s a sneak peek from my visit to Mason City:

This sign does not point to downtown Mason City, but rather to a quirky and interesting attraction.

This sign does not point to downtown Mason City, but rather to a quirky and interesting attraction.

Any guesses as to what this might be?

Any guesses as to what this might be? Photographed in the heart of downtown Mason City.

My husband kicks back in an historic building that draws lots of interest.

My husband kicks back in an historic building that draws lots of architectural interest.

Not just any old street corner in any old neighborhood.

Not just any old street corner in any old neighborhood.

Check back for a closer look at these attractions as we tour Mason City before journeying toward the eastern border of Iowa.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling